CHN: National Service Legislation Ready for President’s Signature
At the urging of President Obama, a former community organizer, the House and Senate moved quickly to revise and expand national and community service programs. On March 26 the Senate passed The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, H.R. 1388, 79-19 with strong bi-partisan support. The House followed on March 31, passing the bill by a vote of 275-149. Formerly named the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education (GIVE) Act, the Senate renamed the bill after Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), lead Senate sponsor and lifelong champion of volunteer service.
Current programs under the Corporation for National and Community Service include Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps), and Learn and Serve America. Together the network of local, state and national programs provide a wide array of community service opportunities for youth through seniors in public-private partnerships with nonprofits, public agencies and faith-based and other community organizations. The programs address needs in areas that include education, public safety and the environment with volunteers tutoring and mentoring students, assisting seniors with day-to-day tasks, building affordable housing, cleaning parks and streams, running after-school programs, or helping communities respond to disasters. H.R. 1388 expands the mission of the Corporation for National and Community Service and calls for new programs that provide incentives for students and senior citizens to participate in volunteer community service.
New programs include: Campuses of Service which funds institutions of higher education to develop service-learning programs that assist their student’s pursuit of public service careers; Innovative Service Learning Programs and Research which funds community service-learning opportunities for elementary through graduate students as well as research into service learning; and AmeriCorps Opportunity Corps programs to increase community access to technology, reduce recidivism by re-engaging court-involved youth, and other activities.
The bill would increase the National Service educational awards for full-time AmeriCorps, NCCC, and VISTA participants from $4,725 to $5,350 and set it at a level equal to the maximum available Pell Grant in the future.
The bill expresses the sense of the Congress that the number of AmeriCorps, VISTA, and NCCC participants should increase to 250,000 by 2014, triple its current level of 75,000 and costing an estimated $5.7 billion over five years. Funding will depend on the annual appropriations process. The bill gives priority in VISTA participant selection to disadvantaged youth and retired adults.
When the bill first passed the House on March 18, Representative Foxx (R-NC) used a procedural motion to insert language that would bar both organizations and volunteers who receive funding under the bill from engaging in “partisan political activities” including lobbying, participating in boycotts or strikes, and conducting voter registration. The House adopted the language in order to keep the bill from dying. Opposition to the provision was expressed by non-profits and others concerned about freedom of speech. In the Senate the prohibition on those activities for organizations and participants, when they are not involved in their service work, was dropped from the bill before sending it back to the House for final passage.
During the course of the debate on the bill the Senate rejected an amendment proposed by Senator Vitter (R-LA) that would have prohibited the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or organizations affiliated or co-located with ACORN, from receiving any of the money authorized under the bill.